By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Monk, The Maestros, And The Magic Of Their Music

The extremely hot weather during the summer season in most parts of India (including the Capital, New Delhi) is not very conducive to cultural activities.  If you write a culture column in a newspaper, this near-vacuum creates an ideal opportunity for reading and reflecting on cultural concepts, trends and issues  --  and sometimes it results in a monumental piece of writing, like the following essay.

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Glossary/Annotations (in same order as the text)

Pallavi  --  In Carnatic music (classical music of South India), the first stanza of a traditional song   --  which is invariably very brief  --  serves as a prelude, and is called 'Pallavi'.  In a different sense, Pallavi also means a self-contained lyric of just two lines, which resembles such preludes but encapsules a whole theme, and is rendered in a repetitive mode with gradually increasing intensity. 

Max Müller Bhavan  --  Name by which the units of the Goethe Institut (a world-wide German cultural organization) functioning in Indian cities are known.  Max Müller (1823-1900) was a dedicated German scholar and Indologist, and 'Bhavan' means 'institution' in Hindi and other Indian languages.

Bucephalus  --  The famous horse of Alexander the Great (4th century BC).

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THE HINDU, New Delhi
17 July 1987
Poems and unsung pallavi

This smouldering summer in the Capital has been a sabbatical season for the culture correspondent, because there are no worthwhile events to attend and write about, week after week.  If you are not lucky enough to have gone away somewhere else on vacation and are also reluctant to get away from your subject even for a short while, you spend much of your free time either catching up on cultural education, or indulging in introspective reflections on your past experiences and old memories. 

So far as I am concerned, I am neither on furlough, nor can overcome my preoccupation with music;  so I try to improve my knowledge by reading scholarly books on the subject and listening to recorded music.  In this frame of mind, I naturally tend to recollect  the highlights of my own musical experiences and savour the marvellous memories they evoke. 

The other day I borrowed from the Max Müller Bhavan library a delightful volume entitled Essays on Music, by the eminent German musical scholar Albert Einstein (1881-1952).  He not only revised certain famous musical lexicons and edited a distinguished German journal of musicology, but also wrote with insight on many aspects of Western music.  One of Einstein's most valuable contributions to the history of music was his authentic research on the Italian madrigals of the Renaissance period.

Humble poet

The book I've mentioned contains an interesting chapter on the lives and works of the Italian poet, Abbot Don Angelo Grillo, a Benedictine monk who lived in various monasteries  in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  Grillo revelled in writing madrigals which were set to music by several contemporary composers including Claudio Monteverdi.  He seemed to have been greatly impressed by the distinguished musicians who honoured his poetry with their compositions;  and the admiration and humility with which he approached them are clearly visible in some of his letters which are reproduced in Einstein's book.

For example, here's an extract of a letter written by him to the composer Massimiano Gabbiani, who was also a monk of the Benedictine order:

"The steel which pierced San Placido had, as I read last night of his martyrdom, also penetrated my heart.  Soon afterwards from my eyes, and soon also from my pen, fell this little tear-drop. . .  May your Reverence receive it as a pledge of my piety, if not as the text for a composition. . . ."

Later on Grillo followed this up tactfully:

"I sent your Reverence a few months ago little madrigal about the martyrdom of San Placido, so that you might honour it with your music, but I fear it was lost, for you have written me nothing about it.  I am sending it to you once again.  Signor Lelio Bertanti used to say to me that a capable musician who composed to a foolish text was like a brave knight riding a sorry jade.  Though your Reverence in this case is not exactly riding Bucephalus, nonetheless I think you are not altogether badly mounted. . . ."

To the composer Giulio Caccini, who was a good friend, Abbbot Grillo once wrote as follows:

"To give to you is more valuable than to receive from others, as you crown one's gift with the glory of your music, and make the giver famous. . . . I know how far that madrigal of mine has flown on the wings of the song with which you provided it, and what sweet power it has when it is sung with the right expression. . . ."

Heavenly harmony

And finally, I would like you to consider the following passage from the monk's letter to Monteverdi:

"How well your divine music corresponds to the divine subject of my sacred madrigal, and how completely heavenly it has become through your harmony!. . . .  I wish I had the tongue to praise it according to its  merits, as I have the ear to appreciate it as it deserves, especially when it is sung by Campagnola, or a comparable singer.  For only a perfect singer with a heavenly voice, such as the Signora Adriana , should dare to approach such a composition.

"When Signora Adriana unites her voice with the instrument, and gives the strings life and speech with her direction, she wins our hearts with her sweet enchantment;  we are carried to Heaven although our bodies remain on earth.  And this rose of mine, blossoming from the bloody tears of Jesus Christ's body, will, because of the gentle emphasis of your music, bring from the eyes of the listeners real tears of compassion  --  and from their mouths a thousand blessings for you, who do not merely add notes to the text in your creations, but form magic wands directing the heart and the intellect through your art, to say nothing of darts which inflict wounds of joy and astonishment. . . ."

(to be continued)

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PostScript, 2013
The Abbot and I : parallel dreams

This was a rather long article which projected two very different scenarios, in different countries, cultures and centuries, both governed by very similar sentiments.  I shall separately post the concluding part of the essay, which concerns my own day-dreams about a couplet I had composed for Carnatic music  as it calls for some detailed explanations to make it truly ww-ww (worldwide-webworthy).

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